As a rise in unvaccinated individuals corresponds with reemergence of measles infection in the United States, new evidence from researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital shows the measles vaccine offers two layers of protection. In addition to preventing the acute illness behind pediatric hospitalization and global mortality, the vaccine also appears to protect the body by boosting immunity over the longer term.

The study, conducted by an international research team led by Brigham investigators and published October 31 in Science, is the first to measure the underlying immune damage caused by the measles virus. The team revealed that the virus wipes out between 11 and 73 percent of antibodies providing immunity to other infections—from influenza and herpes to pneumonia and skin infections.

“The threat measles poses to people is much greater than we previously imagined,” said senior author Stephen Elledge, PhD, the Gregor Mendel Professor of Genetics and of Medicine in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School and the Brigham. “We now understand the mechanism is a prolonged danger due to erasure of the immune memory, demonstrating that the measles vaccine is of even greater benefit than we knew.”

For the study, Elledge’s group used VirScan, a diagnostic tool he co-developed, to measure antibodies before and two months after infection in blood samples from unvaccinated children who’d contracted the disease during a 2013 measles outbreak in the Netherlands. The researchers also compared the measurements to uninfected children and adults. A striking drop in antibodies from other pathogens was found in the measles-infected children that “clearly suggested a direct effect on the immune system,” the authors said.

The results offer additional evidence supporting inoculating children with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, which did not impair children’s overall immunity. This aligns with decades of research. Ensuring widespread vaccination against measles would not only help prevent the 120,000 deaths that will be directly attributed to measles this year alone, but could also avert potentially hundreds of thousands of additional deaths attributable to the lasting damage to the immune system, the authors said.

Read more, and watch a video featuring Dr. Elledge, here.